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IndyCar's Scott Dixon quietly seeking another late rally

Winless in 2014, IndyCar's Scott Dixon is counting on another late rally to get into title contention.

Scott Dixon has been an IndyCar driver for more than a decade. And yet aside from his chiseled face, his up-swept brown hair and the way his 5-foot-10, 150-pound frame fills out a fire suit, there isn’t much about the 33-year-old driver that’s, well, racy.

The defending champion doesn’t make his year-round home at some warm coastal address; he lives in Indianapolis, mostly to stay close to Target Chip Ganassi, the only open-wheel racing team he’s known since he immigrated to IndyCar from the expiring CART series in 2003. (He's now the longest-tenured driver in the team's history.) Dixon did not marry a supermodel or a pop star or a leading lady; he chose the former middle-distance runner Emma Davies—a British 800-meters titleholder with whom he’d go on to have a pair of girls named Poppy and Tilly.

Any beef that Dixon has ever had with a fellow driver likely simmered over a barbie, which is what they call a grill in his native New Zealand. Beyond the gauges on his steering wheel, he isn’t much of a needle-mover. “I’m a very normal person,” he says in a monotone. 

Not even Dixon’s exploits inside the cockpit register beyond the track, where he isn’t so much daring as he is dependable. During his 11 IndyCar seasons before this year, he has won at least one race in each except for a lone dry spell as a sophomore in 2004. His 33 career victories lead all active IndyCar drivers and rank seventh on the alltime list. The drivers in front of him all have names like Andretti, Foyt and Unser—legends that popularized the classic racecar driver stereotype as we know it.

The Dixon brand, however, is as difficult to distinguish among the open-wheel legends of that era as it is in this one—where being fast is as important as being famous, if not more. Dixon doesn’t evoke Hollywood glitz like Dario Franchitti (Ashley Judd’s ex) or exude made-for-TV campiness like Helio Castroneves (a former Dancing with the Stars titlist with a recent credit on Celebrity Wife Swap). Nor does Dixon stir feelings of a more fleshly nature, like Danica Patrick, who has dominated Madison Avenue, but not IndyCar or NASCAR.

No, Dixon goes about his business quietly and delivers steady returns: so far, one series championship every five years (2013, 2008, 2003), a top-three finish in every year but three. Quite simply, he is the Berkshire Hathaway of drivers.

That’s why no one on Ganassi’s No. 9 team is panicking going into this Sunday’s Pocono 500—a 200-lap tri-oval event that airs at noon ET on NBC Sports Network—even though Dixon is running ninth in the driver standings (or 168 points behind series pace-setter Will Power) and has yet to win in 2014. About this same time last year, Dixon found himself in a similar predicament before kicking off at Pocono a three-race win streak that lifted him back into title contention.

Could another turnaround be in store? “This team is very strong at doing that,” Dixon says. “We definitely came into the season trying to have a solid start and be a bit more consistent, but unfortunately we didn’t do that. It’s to the point where we’ve really got to put our heads down and go for wins right now. Plain and simple.”

So this would seem like the perfect moment to take an interest in Dixon. Still, just to be clear, this isn’t the absolute best time to invest. That can’t-miss opportunity came and went 20 years ago.

Scott Dixon, Inc.

Back then, in the go-go ’90s, Scott Dixon was just a startup—albeit one that had all of New Zealand buzzing. He penetrated the national consciousness as a 13-year-old—six years after starting in racing as a chubby go-kart driver—when he was granted a racing license two years before he could legally drive on the street. During one of his first stock car races, a nationally televised event at a track that doubles as a horse racing venue near his home in the Auckland suburb of Manurewa, the young Scott made it plain that he would not be bridled, running his Nissan Sentra so hard he rolled it onto its roof. Spectators gained a further appreciation for his sense of urgency when the teary-eyed boy crawled out of his car with a floral cushion strapped to his rear and tried in futility to roll the Sentra back onto its wheels. Without the booster seat, he wouldn’t have been able to reach the pedals or see over the steering wheel.

Otherwise, the kid had little trouble finding his path. In 1994 he graduated to the Formula First level—an open-wheel, single-seater junior racing circuit featuring kazoo-shaped Volkswagens—and won the series championship. The next year, at legal driving age, he jumped to the Formula Ford level and won all but one race en route to claiming that series title, too.

His talent had clearly exceeded that of his parents, both of whom had been dirt track racers. To ensure his career did as well, Scott moved to Australia to race at another level up, in the Formula Holden series. Even stiffer than his competition were his bills. To keep the kid’s focus on racing and his ambition from bankrupting his family, Scott’s father, Ron—a Japanese car importer—hatched a million-dollar idea: He would turn his son into a company that he could parcel off to investors. Ron rebranded his boy "Scott Dixon Motorsports" (symbol: SDMS) and, in two years, peddled in excess of $1 million in shares to some 15 Kiwi businessmen.

How could they resist? SDMS was an easy sell. In 1997, Dixon was named rookie of the year after finishing third in the Formula Holden point standings. The following season he won the series outright—a triumph that led to another career break even farther away from home—in the U.S.—in the Indy Lites series. After acing his big audition at Sebring, where he’d set a speed record, Dixon scored a ride with Johansson Motorsports. His first year was rocky, as he failed to complete four of the season’s 12 events and sank to an average finish of 8.1. He rebounded during his sophomore year, notching six wins while cruising to the series championship. The best part: he cleared $170,300 in on-track revenue. “In 2000 I actually ended up getting paid!” Dixon says.

The following year he scored a major promotion to the CART series at age 20. But when he went on to win only one race in two seasons while driving for PacWest, it seemed like the kid had been given too much too soon. Racing industry analysts might’ve been inclined to write off Dixon as a lemon if the dotcom bubble hadn’t burst. PacWest owner Bruce McCaw, the steward of a pioneering cellular communications firm, was hit so badly that he disbanded his racing team in 2002 and Dixon with it.

However, McCaw’s engine maker, Toyota, valued Dixon enough to facilitate an introduction to another client—Chip Ganassi. He quickly moved to acquire Dixon, assigning him a new third car behind ’99 Indy 500 winner Kenny Brack and ’02 CART series runner-up Bruno Junqueira. In 2003 the Ganassi team bolted from the flagging CART series to IndyCar, where Dixon emphatically shook off his slump. That season he collected eight podium finishes, including three on the top step, and ran away with the series championship as a rookie. Two years later, Dixon would claim an even more impressive triumph.

“I was able to pay my investors back,” he says. “They all made money. I think the fun part for them was that they were able to keep it to a small group of people that just wanted to see a young Kiwi make it on the world stage. If you had to write a book, you couldn't write it any better.”

Dixon’s story is so good—so American, really—that it’s somewhat surprising that the invisible hand of the free market hasn’t rewritten it a million times over by now. Fans are already so predisposed to blowing inordinate amounts of money on sports entertainment, what’s a few more dollars spent on a young driver who’s trying to make it—especially if there’s reason to believe that the investment might yield a material dividend?

But instead of a sports brokerage vehicle that promises a true trade-off, that connects athletes who need funding with people who believe in their dreams enough to invest in them, we get indices like FanTex. The firm, which lives online and is regulated by the SEC, bills itself as “the first registered trading platform that lets you buy and sell stock linked to the value and performance of a pro athlete brand.” The fact that they only have two jock stocks on offer, both from the NFL—Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel and 49ers tight end Vernon Davis—wouldn’t be an issue if one hadn’t already matured and the other wasn’t quickly depreciating.

The smart money would find these guys while they’re young. Heck, Dixon does as much. Since achieving financial security—thanks in large part to some $20 million in career IndyCar earnings—he has seeded money into the career of fellow Kiwi Brendan Hartley, a 24-year-old Le Mans driver who has already had a cup of coffee in Formula One.

Dixon might well be racing at that level too if he didn’t already have his dream job in IndyCar with Ganassi. One of his favorite features of the gig is working with the No. 9 crew, which has more or less remained the same since its expansion year in ’03. Dixon’s crew chief, Blair Julian, has been in his ear since Dixon was turning laps in Indy Lites. “You get the occasional person who’s moved around within the team,” Dixon says. “But if you can be on a team that wins, you’re much more likely to stay than go to a team that struggles.”

Power struggles

His racing career over, Dario Franchitti (left) now serves as an advisor to Scott Dixon.

His racing career over, Dario Franchitti (left) now serves as an advisor to Scott Dixon.

Right now, alas, the No. 9 car is a team that’s struggling—and for a combination of reasons, Dixon says. Franchitti, Dixon’s longtime Ganassi teammate, abruptly retired after escaping a near death crash last year at Houston, leaving Dixon without a valued co-conspirator. (He can still bounce ideas off Franchitti, though; he remains in the Ganassi fold as a technical advisor.) Dixon’s in-race strategies have felt too conservative to him at times, as well.

A power transplant, from Honda-built engines to Chevy, hasn’t helped Dixon’s lot either. “It's an issue of drivability,” he says. “The way I manipulate the car, I want a response straight away out of the engine. Right now, the Chevy drives a little bit different, and I've had to change my style a little bit to sorta deal with that.”

Dixon's slump persisted last week in Houston at a mammoth IndyCar event that spans two days, covers 180 laps and follows a 1.7-mile path through the parking lots abutting the old Astrodome. Forty-six laps into the Saturday race, Dixon rubbed the wall at Turn 9 and wrecked into Charlie Kimball. On Sunday, Dixon’s brakes bedeviled him all afternoon and ultimately ended his race 12 laps from the finish.

Still, it wasn’t an entirely bad weekend for the Kiwi. He qualified third for the Saturday race, his highest starting position of the season. What’s more, he could easily wind up back in the title hunt if he and his team can find away to smooth out the No. 9 car’s kinks over the season’s next four races—starting this Sunday at Pocono. Under IndyCar’s revised points system, 500-mile races like Pocono are now worth double the points for top-10 finishers. A repeat win could potentially vault Dixon back among the top four drivers in the standings.

Of course, Dixon refuses to get ahead of himself—even after a round of productive tests on ovals at Iowa and Milwaukee late last month. “The top three are a ways out,” he says. “But hopefully, with the testing that we’ve just done, we can right a few things.”

Why would he rush? His slow and steady approach always seems to pays off in the long run.